Every organization I’ve worked in has had an entry level position with the word “associate” in it. Associate Engineer, Associate Software Engineer, Associate Systems Analyst, etc. This is the position for the new grads – you kids who have just finished your bachelor’s degree in computer science, computer engineering, or some other related field.
The associate gig is, for all intents and purposes, a probationary one. You are a trainee, and you’ve got about a year to get up to speed and prove that you can be productive without the need of constant supervision. After a year, no one is supposed to be holding your hand anymore, and if they are it’s time to start shopping for a new job.
My experience with Associates is that most of them outgrow their associate status in about four months if given challenging assignments. Sadly, the organizations they work for don’t recognize this progression till months, and sometimes years, later.
The result? Associates earn their first promotion months, sometimes years, before they get it. And if they don’t learn from it, it continues this way for as long as they stay at the company. Some reward for loyalty! Meanwhile, their less loyal classmates hop around every year or so and before long they’re income is twice that of the guy they left behind. Poor guy.
That’s right. Any competent “associate” can get their first promotion faster by leaving twelve months from the day they started than they can by sticking around. This is one of the stupidest aspects of corporate IT there is, but it’s not going to change anytime soon. It’s the nature of corporate IT: promotions come slowly, even when they’re deserved.
The reason is simple. Promotions, even the simplest ones, require a great deal of time and effort on the part of the promoting manager. It’s usually not a decision your boss can make on his own. No, he has to get the buy-in of his boss, and sometimes even his boss’s boss. And then he has to take it to human resources and get through the paperwork part of the promotion process. It’s a royal pain, and an average manager isn’t going to go through this process without a really compelling reason to do it. A great manager will see this as his highest priority, but the reason he’s a great manager is because there aren’t very many like him. Odds are good your boss is just average.
And guess what? Associate Software Engineers don’t normally count as compelling reasons. Let me tell you why:
#1: You probably don’t perform a critical function. Most associates do work that nobody else wants to do, but all of them can. You probably do it a heck of a lot better than them, but nobody cares.
#2: You probably aren’t as “tight” with your manager as your more highly titled co-workers. This means he doesn’t really know as much about you as the tech lead.
#3: You probably haven’t learned how to have constructive career discussions with your manager yet. In fact, you’re probably a little scared of him.
So, is there anything you can do to make sure you get the promotion you deserve in a timely manner? Yes. Let me tell you about it.
First, see the first eight months of your new position as probationary for you and for the company. You’ve got skills, aptitude, and soon you’ll have a little experience. If you don’t like the company (or they don’t like you) the deal is off. You can walk, or they can walk you.
Second, start asking what you have to do to get your first promotion from the very beginning. You should ask your manager this in the FIRST month of your new job. Then, schedule time every month to do two things with your manager: review your progress to date against the requirements and plan the training/assignments you need to make the next required progression. This will do a couple of things – it will formalize what he expects and help you to feel more comfortable discussing your career with your boss. Take notes and keep them.
Third, kick butt at your job. What you lack in experience you can make up for in enthusiasm and innovative spirit. Find ways to make your job easier. If you perform some manual tasks that could be replaced by a script or program, write the program (without falling behind), test it, and start using it. Then tell your boss about it.
Fourth, ask your boss about your promotion as soon as you think you’ve gotten to the level established in the second step. Take notes about what he tells you. If he says you’re not ready, ask him why and TAKE NOTES. Ask him how he’s going to help you get to the next level. If he says you’re ready, ask him what’s next. TAKE NOTES. Tell him the promotion means a lot to you and that you’ve worked hard to earn it.
Fifth, start looking for a new job at ten months. Not in earnest, just see what’s out there. Are there opportunities out there for you? How hard would it be to find a job without the stupid “associate” label and the 10% raise that comes with that first promotion? Knowing this will help you to keep your efforts to get your in-house promotion in the proper perspective.
Sixth, keep bugging your manager about your promotion every month. If you’ve met his requirements and he hasn’t made the effort to promote you, he sucks. By “sucks,” I mean that he doesn’t have the organizational skills or loyalty to reward his people for their efforts. If his explanations don’t change from month to month, your boss really SUCKS. Fire him.
Seventh, eleven months and two weeks into your new job, start interviewing for a new job.
If you hit twelve months and you are still an associate whatever, quit. Tell your boss why your quitting – he didn’t meet your expectations as a boss, but you met his. In other words, tell him he sucks. Arrange for an exit interview with his boss if you can, and tell him that he sucks too.
Finally, enjoy your new job, new title, and new salary. You earned it. Quitting my first job was the best career decision I’ve ever made.